The new HRx albums from Reference Recordings are unlike anything I've ever heard. While I did have high expectations for these releases I certainly did not expect anything this close to perfection. I am absolutely blown away by the sound quality. Everything from the crystal clear highs to the extremely accurate lows sounded fabulous. In fact all the typical audiophile adjectives that describe great sound are apropos for these albums. Read more to find out why this product might be the catalyst that kicks the high end audio world into gear and popularizes music servers like none other.
I've listened to some great systems and wrote about excellent products from Wilson Audio to Audio Research Corporation. But, I've never been this enthusiastic about a single audio product. One reasons is the HRx releases from Reference Recordings really have the ability to drive great change in the high end audio world. These albums come as WAV files on DVD Data discs. There is no way to play them on a standard DVD/DVD-Audio player. Thus, you have to copy the album's tracks to your computer or canned music server. This alone will likely drag many audiophile holdouts into their high end shop to order a canned music server or a great DAC, capable of playing these tunes in their native 24 bit / 176.4 kHz resolution, that they can connect to a computer. As many of you already know, once the flood gates are opened to using a computer for high end audio reproduction there is no turning back. Greater convenience and better sound. There has never been such an easy decision to make. Those of you still seeking to justify a music server purchase just had your wish granted by Reference Recordings. Face it, there is no other way you're going to experience this much quality without going to a live performance.
The first three HRx release from Reference Recordings are HR-112 CROWN IMPERIAL, HR-109 YERBA BUENA BOUNCE, and HR-96 RACHMANINOFF. All three are bit-for-bit copies of the original masters in 24/176.4 high resolution. Crown Imperial features the Dallas Wind Symphony and its music director Jerry Junkin. Rachmaninoff is performed by the Minnesota Orchestra / Eiji Oue. Like the other RR Minnesota Orchestra releases this performance is excellent. Yerba Buena Bounce is the tenth album by the jazz ensemble The Hot Club of San Franciso. Each of these three albums is great when played back in the original HDCD format. Now these great recordings are spectacular with the release of the HRx version that remains High Definition Compatible Digital (HDCD). The albums sell for $45 and are available right from the Reference Recordings website. The price may seem a bit steep but I assure you these albums are well worth $45.
Playback of these HRx albums is best accomplished with a DAC / computer combination that supports the 24/176.4 high resolution. The albums are playable on lower resolution systems, but the sound is not world class like it is when played back through the right DAC and computer combo. My system for this review contained a macBook Pro and the Weiss Engineering Minerva firewire DAC. I tried a few other DACs during my listening sessions for this review, but without the 24/176.4 support when connected to a MacBook the other DACs failed to reproduce the real magic of these recordings. Listening through a popular DAC that supports native 24/96 via USB made the music sound very constricted and forced me back to the Minerva in no time at all. Apple Corp. claims its Macs support up to 24/192 through the built-in optical outputs. This would be a fairly good option for listening to HRx releases through a wider array DACs, but to the best of my knowledge nobody has been able to adjust the Audio Midi settings above 24/96. The people at Reference Recordings strongly suggest using a computer with the Lynx Studio AES 16e PCIexpress card connected via AES/EBU to a Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC. This DAC fully supports HDCD and has an indicator light to confirm the HDCD content is played back bit perfect. Both the Weiss Minerva and the Berkeley Alpha support Windows and Mac OS X.
I began this review talking about the wonderful sound of these HRx recordings and I will complete the review talking about the wonderful sound. All three recordings offer something a little different. A wind symphony, an orchestra, and a jazz ensemble to be precise. My favorite album is Crown Imperial by the Dallas Wind Symphony. The dynamics reproduced on this one are stunning. My favorite track on my favorite album is number three Walton Crown Imperial. This track has an awesome display of highs and lows right from the start. Your system will really get a workout if you like the volume a little loud like I do. The crashing cymbals and the deep drums both sound perfect with spectacular definition and separation. The compression utilized by so many popular recordings is nowhere to be found around this recording (and the other HRx releases). Track number eight Daugherty Niagara Falls is a real treat for systems that have no trouble reproducing highs. The whole song has a range of highs and lows, but it is the beginning that I really love. The mix of instruments is crystal clear, especially when played back through the Weiss Minerva DAC. I played this track several times on several DACs and none of them came close to the quality of the Weiss Minerva (complete Minerva review coming soon). Jazz ensemble fans will really like Yerba Buena Bounce. The album is upbeat and the acoustic guitar sound like it is coming from within the listening room. Track number eight Black and White has some great guitar, bass, and violin. In the middle of the track the bass gets going. The definition and realness of it are fabulous. The rest of the instruments are all played to perfection and sound like perfection when played back in the HRx 24/176.4 high resolution resolution. The Rachmaninoff performance by the Minnesota Orchestra is equally as thrilling as the other two HRx releases. This album has powerful dynamics and the sound ranges from barely audible to room filling splendor. Wellington the Computer Audiophile cat, pictured here, happened to stroll in and jump on my lap during a rather quiet passage on the album. As you can probably guess he took off briskly when the complete orchestra kicked in and the whole house was filled with sound emanating from my listening room. Sorry Wellington, I should have warned you :-) The rest of the album is typical Minnesota Orchestra greatness combined with Reference Recordings stunning HRx sound. There really is nothing negative to say about any of these recordings.
The long wait from HRx announcement to HRx delivery was more than worth it. After hearing it at CES I talked it up to everyone who bothered to listen. Fortunately the sound is even better in the privacy of a quiet controlled environment like my listening room. My McIntosh / Avalon Acoustics / Weiss Engineering system really put me in the jazz club or the orchestra pit depending on the album. I honestly can't believe how excited I am about the HRx "format." It's hard to be happy about a few albums that render your complete collection obsolete, but I really am elated about HRx. If Computer Audiophile handed out awards HRx from Reference Recordings would sweep the whole ceremony.